By Donal Hickey, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Muckross House, Gardens and Traditional Farms
Like every other visitor-orientated operation, Muckross – a partnership between the State and a voluntary board of trustees – had a ‘challenging’ 2020, but there are hopes of some sort of recovery in 2021.
The outlook for the coach tour business and overseas visitors, however, is poor and many places will again be looking to Irish people to make up for these losses in some way.
In ‘normal’ years, between 110,000 and 120,000 people visit the House, and around 70,000 to the Farms.
Last summer in Killarney, we had a large influx of Irish people, families in particular, which compensated in part for the lack of other visitors and the year overall would be far worse only for that.
The immediate priority in Muckross is to recover from the adverse effects of COVID-19, to get the business moving again and to safeguard employment. The Muckross trustees employ around 65 people and at least as many more are taken on as seasonal staff.
The house was built in 1843 and, given its age, ongoing and expensive maintenance works are required.
The restaurant, craft shop, weaving, pottery, bookbinding, research library and farms are run by the trustees, but the trustees have no responsibility for the National Park.
Most of the big projects by the trustees, in recent years, involved work to the House, including the restoration of all the windows and repairs to the roof and chimney at a cost of around €1.2m. Work was also done to the basement of the house, including the old laundry and servants’ dining hall, at a further cost of €0.47m.
A capital project currently nearing completion in the restoration of the old Victorian stables which also involves the provision of new toilets and refurbished offices upstairs.
In the next few years, the focus will switch to the Traditional Farms which were opened almost 30 years ago. Repair and maintenance work is needed there, especially to the old houses. That work would be phased over a number of a years. The schoolhouse was the last major project on the Farms, seven years ago.
The Farms will be open in 2021 and we hope that more visitor activities can take place there than was the case in 2020, when people were just allowed walk through the place. The level of activities on the Farms in 2021 will, of course, depend on what’s permitted under COVID-19 restrictions.
I’d be hopeful of a general improvement in 2021, particularly in the second half of the year, and am confident Muckross will bounce back once ‘normality’ returns.
Major new capital projects are unlikely to begin in the short-term, however. Priorities include new and upgraded car parking facilities and the restoration of the glasshouses, which are well over 100-years-old.
But, ambitious plans for a multi-million Euro boating museum, based on the history and lore of the fabled Lakes of Killarney, have definitely been pushed further down the road by the present crisis.